WASHINGTON — Leaving piles of unfinished business for the fall, Congress began exiting Washington on Thursday for a five-week vacation with its accomplishments few, its efforts at budgeting in tatters and its collective nerves frayed by months of feuding.
The House's chief accomplishment for the week was a bipartisan Wednesday vote to deal with spiking student loan interest rates, readying that legislation for President Barack Obama's signature. But that bit of progress came the very day that a Republican strategy of embracing painful automatic budget cuts imploded with the collapse of a major transportation and housing bill.
That measure fell victim, top lawmakers said, to opposition from both conservative and more moderate Republicans and laid bare the flaws in the party's budget strategy, which promised deeper cuts to domestic programs than the rank and file were willing to deliver in votes on funding bills implementing the pledge.
Before leaving town, the GOP House prepared its 40th attack on Obama's signature health care law on Friday and slated votes on other legislation aimed at embarrassing the administration and sharpening the party's political message for encounters back home with constituents.
Also on Friday, GOP leaders looked forward to an easier time with two other votes, one to block the Internal Revenue Service from enforcing "Obamacare's" penalties on people who don't buy health insurance and another on the "Stop Government Abuse Act," which among its provisions would allow people to tape record conversations they have with IRS agents and other federal workers.
As the Senate raced out its own doors on Thursday, it confirmed Obama's nomination of Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. That capped an unusually productive run of advancing administration nominations — but one that came only after majority Democrats threatened to rewrite the rules to take away the GOP's right to filibuster such nominees.
Senators also held a bipartisan closed-door luncheon in hopes of continuing the fragile sense of comity that has enveloped the chamber since it defused the filibuster battle.
But that session came just minutes after Republican Senators banded together to shut down the Democrats' attempt to advance their own, far more generous version of the transportation and housing bill, which was filled with funding for popular items such as road and bridge repairs and community development grants for local projects,
Republicans united to kill the $54 billion measure, following the instructions of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who kept GOP defections to only one: moderate Susan Collins of Maine, who co-wrote the measure from her position on the Appropriations Committee. Republicans killed the bill because it exceeded the punishing spending limits required under automatic budget cuts that were themselves the product of Washington's failure to deal with its fiscal problems.
McConnell said moving ahead on the bill would have been seen as backing away from the spending cuts promised in a deficit-cutting deal enacted two years ago that promised $2.1 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years. The automatic cuts are to total $1.2 trillion through 2021.
Collins, trying to persuade other Republicans to break with McConnell, at first struggled to be heard above the Senate's din.
That prompted an unusual outburst from Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.:
"Madame President, have senators sit down and shut up, OK?" he barked at presiding officer Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who broke into a wide smile captured by C-SPAN cameras.
After the vote, Democrats rushed to news cameras, appearing with union construction workers in hard hats to accuse Republicans of killing jobs.
"We had a bill that would have put people to work, fixed bridges and highways, improved public safety," said a disappointed but combative Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the chair of Appropriations. "It would have gotten America moving. It would have gotten America working."
The demise of the transportation measure in both House and Senate leaves Congress at the drawing board when it comes to the budget as it prepares to leave Washington for a month. The new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, and it'll take a stopgap funding bill to prevent a government shutdown.
Tea party Republicans are willing to force a partial government shutdown over "defunding Obamacare," an idea that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, opposes privately but is unwilling to criticize in public. A more likely outcome is a plain vanilla stopgap measure to keep the government operating at current levels for a few weeks or months. That measure would also keep the food stamp program running while lawmakers figure a way to approve a broader rewrite of food stamps and farm subsidies.
An even bigger showdown comes later in the fall over must-pass legislation increasing the government's borrowing cap to prevent a first-ever, market-rattling default on U.S. obligations.
GOP leaders had sought to set up a budget showdown this summer with the need to pass legislation increasing the government's $16.7 trillion borrowing cap. But the economy's better-than-expected performance has delayed that showdown — and contributed to the sense of drift this summer.
Republican want to link the debt limit measure to a broader budget deal, but Obama says he won't negotiate over the debt limit as he did two years ago, a promise he repeated to his House and Senate allies in closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
All sides want to reverse the crippling automatic cuts, but a partisan impasse — over tax increases sought by Obama and his Democratic allies and cuts to so-called mandatory programs like Medicare and food stamps demanded by Republicans — shows no signs of breaking.
The glass-half-full perspective is that the barely functioning Congress will return in September willing to make agreements and tackle problems whose solutions have thus far proven elusive.
Said Boehner: "I'm sure the August recess will have our members in a better mood when they come back."